Top

Blah Blah Blah


Ian Jones on The Comic Strip Presents…

First published July 2001

It’s debatable whether the former head of Channel 4 and sometime boss of the Royal Opera House ever visited the legendary Raymond’s Revuebar in London’s Soho, but he certainly knew enough about a group of performers based on its upstairs floor in the early 1980s to let them join Richard Whiteley as part of C4′s opening night line-up.

Jeremy Isaacs sanctioned development of the first official Comic Strip film in 1982 with haste and, you have to begrudge the fusty curmudgeon, fine judgement. His own son had recommended appointing former Something Else producer Mike Bolland, another Comic Strip fan, to the post of C4 youth and entertainment commissioning editor. Soon after taking the job Bolland was visited by “A shy shuffling man with a long black coat” who identified himself as Peter Richardson, representing the Comic Strip, proposing that the station fund a series of films. It was Bolland’s first commission, Isaacs quickly approved the budget, and only then did Richardson reveal to the others in the group what he’d done.

Almost 20 years on The Comic Strip still just about exists, with everyone apart from Richardson – the core six Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer and Alexei Sayle, plus fellow members Robbie Coltrane and Keith Allen – hugely more famous than they were in 1982. In the process they’ve produced a perplexing collection of one-off films, some appalling, some fantastic, many hugely self-indulgent. Opting to make each film as a stand-alone individual production was no doubt unusual and daring to begin with, but Mark Lewisohn’s observation – “Whether the results were good or bad, to have missed a Comic Strip production meant that you missed something of note”- is somewhat misplaced: looking back there are dreadful films alongside the ace, and not every duffer has been – eventually – counterbalanced with a classic.

To reflect upon what is now very much a creaky institution – a long way from what Paul Jackson once described “the new punk” – OTT presents a dozen examples of Comic Strip films, good and bad. It’s a necessarily subjective selection, but one that includes examples of the series’ general stylistic strengths and weaknesses, besides some far and away standout cases of triumph and disaster.

“IN THE EARLY DAYS IT WAS RUBBISH”

- SIX OF THE BEST

1. FIVE GO MAD IN DORSET (1982)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Bob Spiers

A predictable choice, but it’s a remarkable film, completely deserving of its subsequent canonization and somewhat mythical status. To pitch this at viewers on Channel 4′s opening night of 2 November 1982 still seems surprising, given how its obviously fresh, new and exciting approach was so utterly at odds with most of the station’s dreary debut schedule. The style of pastiche it displays is way above the more clumsy, lazy and contrived approach that crept into later films – here’s a bunch of people enjoying being on camera almost for the hell of it, and deciding to give 100% in the process. It got the press in a flap – “Look What They Have Done To The Famous Five” – and Mike Bolland had to screen it at least twice for members of Enid Blyton’s estate for fear of offence (unfounded – they all loved it). Persuading Ronald Allen to declare, “She’s an unrelenting nymphomaniac and I’m a screaming homosexual …” was Comic Strip producer Michael White’s finest hour.

2. DIRTY MOVIE (1984)
Written by Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall; Directed by Sandy Johnson

The cheapest, most low-key and throwaway film of all and yet still perhaps the best. Rik tries to screen said dirty movie in his poky cinema while wife Jennifer gobbles sweets in the foyer, postman Ade falls down a sewer, Dawn strips, Sergeant Robbie shouts and PCs Nigel and Peter throw nets over wheelchairs. There’s great jazz/lounge incidental music by Alasdair MacNeill, the action never moves beyond one suburban close (an eerie foreshadowing of the inferior Stella Street) and there’s self-consciously silly direction by Johnson. “The blame for this lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the British film industry,” lectures Ade to camera as Dawn accidentally runs over a lobster.

3. GINO – FULL STORY AND PICS (1984)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Bob Spiers

A great film almost wholly because it features a central performance by Keith Allen which is actually, for once, quite good. The plot volleys along with Allen as the eponymous criminal on the run for something or other, meeting all the usual personnel in stupid situations en route, including Rik as an upper class toff – a welcome change from his usual scruff/oik persona. Shamelessly formulaic – just a load of unrelated scenes and encounters – it is held together by tight direction and editing, with a great payoff. Allen says little, and Nigel Planer isn’t in it, which are two more plus points.

4. EDDIE MONSOON – A LIFE? (1984)
Written by Adrian Edmondson; Directed by Sandy Johnson

“Did it have anything to do with seal pups and cans of spray paint?” The welcome rescue attempt made on the notorious An Evening with Eddie Monsoon which Channel 4 pulled from the schedules weeks before it was due to be aired in 1983, and which would have been the only Comic Strip film to have been written by the group collectively. Instead, the whole thing was turned on its head and re-shot under Ade’s supervision sending up the supposed extreme nature of the original with Tony Bilbow hosting a documentary profiling the repulsive, racist and completely mad South African TV host Monsoon. It’s another film that benefits from a freshness within the genre – the spoof fly-on-the-wall – and nothing overstaying its welcome. Jennifer plays a distant forerunner of Edina Monsoon who is more convincing and interesting than in all the series of Absolutely Fabulous combined. The high point is the Right to Reply parody, with Michael White playing himself, and the programme being abandoned when Eddie offers to give him a blow-job.

5. MR JOLLY LIVES NEXT DOOR (1988)
Written by Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Roland Rivron; Directed by Stephen Frears

A world away from the earlier, slightly raw and ragged, spiky films, but showcasing a level of wanton destruction, immaturity and uncleanliness unique on British television. Ade and Rik play their usual repulsive alter egos, but again somehow with far more depth and imagination than would later appear in Bottom. They both work incredibly well opposite Peter Cook (Mr Jolly the serial killer) and none less than Nicholas Parsons, whom the pair accidentally have to “take out” – both in the social sense, and as assassins. There’s great direction from Frears that reins in the by-now huge egos of all Comic Strip personnel. This is the best “middle period” Strip, from a time when Peter Richardson still didn’t have complete control on everyone from the stars to the costume designers.

6. GLC (1990)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Peter Richardson

The second production of the landmark 1990 season, which was the first on the BBC, with associated ballooning budget and shooting time, and the first monopolized entirely by an uncompromising, seemingly despotic Richardson. All the more significant, then, that GLC is so entertaining, and that it’s also basically a rip-off of the earlier, award-winning The Strike (1988). Hollywood stars again play British political figures, but it works because the inflated budget matches the over-the-top premise and characterizations, it’s not as long as The Strike and therefore doesn’t overstay its welcome, it features Robbie Coltrane’s best role (Charles Bronson as Ken Livingstone), and at last mocks the right-on tendencies of the now defunct 1980s and their Alexei Sayle-ite preposterous ranting. The last true classic to date.

“I’M AN ALTERNATIVE COMEDIAN – I’M NOT FUNNY”

- SIX OF THE WORST

1. FIVE GO MAD ON MESCALIN (1983)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Bob Spiers

Precisely one year on from Channel 4 and the Comic Strip’s TV debut came this “sequel” – uninteresting, unappealing, unfunny. The self-proclaimed “one-off” film rule was already broken, and would be again (Bad News, Strike/GLC), but never with such dismal results as this. Compared to its predecessor this film is shocking – not for its subject matter or language, but its amazingly bad script and sense of dramatic structure. The plot lists badly and wanders all over the place; the satirizing of Blyton’s otherworldly na├»ve kids has slipped from subtle and well-crafted to the blundering and obvious. It’s unsettling to view this and its forerunner and remember there’s only 12 months between them. A major gaffe which thankfully the team recovered from – for a while.

2. THE YOB (1988)
Written by Keith Allen and Daniel Peacock; Directed by Ian Emes

An intensely unappealing and grotesque ego-trip for Allen. The first Comic Strip film to display absolutely no charm or sophistication whatsoever, the derivative set-pieces, ridiculous characterization and terrible dialogue render most of this almost unwatchable. Allen’s central idea – a parody of The Fly based on social class – fails to translate into anything convincing on screen, and indeed doesn’t come anywhere near warranting a ridiculous 65 minutes running time. There are too few other Comic Strip regulars involved, meaning Allen dominates proceedings even more than usual. One of the most extreme examples of the pastiche format being taken beyond the point where it can ever be funny or exciting – and there also isn’t one single character it is possible to like. A supremely self-indulgent travesty.

3. FUNSEEKERS (1988)
Written by Nigel Planer and Doug Lucie; Directed by Baz Taylor

Perhaps the most offensively boring film of all. The 1988 Comic Strip season featured writing and direction input from more personnel than ever before and resulted in a scattershot bundle of sometimes remarkable (Mr Jolly, Strike), often horribly tedious productions. The collective talents of the team seemed all too often fragmented, and Funseekers represents the epitome of this: a dishevelled, incomprehensible fable of religion and package holidays, no obvious strong storyline, contrived imagery (a latter-day “Jesus” figure parading round the streets) and really lazy performances. Hardly a joke to be seen, and the glossy production values scream sell-out in every frame.

4. OXFORD (1990)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Peter Richardson

A classic example of the Richardson ego let loose. From this first BBC season onwards there were always more duds than winners, and you felt compelled to tune in more out of duty rather than affection. Oxford is the first Comic Strip it’s possible to be really acutely embarrassed by, such is its inconsequential nature. Once again the jokes seem smothered by the glossy sets and location shoots; the central premise – sending up Oxford University as a den of vice and corruption – explored far better in your average Inspector Morse story. Richardson fails here as both writer and director; none of the actors seem to connect and engage with him, his work, or the viewer.

5. SPACE VIRGINS FROM PLANET SEX (1993)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Peter Richardson and Keith Allen

There was something wrong with every story in the last full Comic Strip season to date, but this is the absolute low. The title sums up the one-dimensional, unimaginative and backward looking attitude on display here. Quite what Allen had to do with the direction remains unclear, as for the most part the film smacks of Peter Richardson at his very worst: fussy, trying too hard, and alternatively patronizing the viewers and his actors. It is also just plain daft trying to do anything with a plot revolving around aliens landing on Earth to bed the planet’s cleverest people in 35 minutes. Next!

6. FOUR MEN AND A PLANE (2000)
Written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens; Directed by Peter Richardson

The Comic Strip wilderness years came to a sudden end half a decade after the close of the dreadful 1993 season. There was a lot riding on the special comeback film Four Men and a Car – it had been a long long time since any sort of memorable production had emerged from Richardson and his cohorts, and it could have been a hugely smug reunion-style knees-up. Thankfully it was really rather good, not that exceptional but certainly not a flop. For this ostensibly follow-up, all the principal protagonists were once again involved, but how different is the end product. Even more insultingly overblown and expensive than anything from the 1993 season, Richardson sends himself, Planer, Mayall and Edmondson into the desert where they each try to upstage the other and indulge in some of the hammiest acting of their careers. Hollow and self-serving, this cannot be the end – it would prove a wholly unfitting epitaph.

YOU ARE HERE …

Also worth avoiding: the two Comic Strip full-length films, given limited cinematic release: The Supergrass (1985) and Eat the Rich (1987); and the unofficial Comic Strip productions, The Bullshitters (1984) and The Glam Metal Detectives (1995). The following curious mixes of both the great and the crap merit at least one viewing: the 1992 election spoof Red Nose of Courage (1992); the enduring Spinal Tap-a-like spoof Bad News Tour (1983) – but not the follow up, More Bad News (1988); and the surreal Falklands Islands tale South Atlantic Raiders (1990) which was the debut Comic Strip BBC broadcast.

Bottom